Parsha Mitzvot-Vaeschanan-Mitzvah 416 – Concept 22 – Talmud Torah Part Two
Transcribed and unedited: According to the Rambam there are two mitzvoth in Hilchot Talmud Torah, and they are to learn and teach Torah – or actually to teach and learn Torah – and the other is to honor those who learn Torah and those who know Torah. So we were in the middle of discussing the mitzvah of teaching and learning Torah and we spoke about how the Rambam begins by stressing the mitzvah of teaching, and I believe that we touched on the idea of mesorah, that the whole point of teaching is that beginning with teaching is to understand and to make sure that we always feel that we are attached to a generation that preceded us. And it is not only important to feel attached in order to feel strong and connected to all of Jewish History, but also because our entire identification with the validity of Torah and the validity of the prophecies of Moshe Rabbenu are because of the transmission that we have of the mesorah from one generation to the next.
There are two aspects of hilchot Talmud Torah.
The mitzvah of learning Torah: One is that every Jew is obligated to learn the complete Torah. You have to learn the entire written law and entire oral law. Oral law does not include Gemara. Oral law means those laws that have been incorporated into the corpus of oral law. Gemara includes the discussions. Now there is a mitzvah, a separate mitzvah to learn Gemara which we will talk about in a second but the mitzvah of teaching Torah applies to the mitzvah of teaching the complete written law and teaching the complete oral law. So the Rambam held that if you would read through all of Tanach and then you would read through the entire Yad Hachazakah, which is his codification of law, then you would have fulfilled this part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah.
There is another part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah and that is to constantly be osaik bedivrei torah. If you remember, if you recall the berachah that we say every morning, birchot hatorah, that the beracha is asher kidashanu bemitzvotav – the one who sanctified us with his commandments – v’tzivanu laasok bedivrei torah – which is to toil in the words of Torah. And toiling means that it is not simply that you are learning the information but that you involve yourself in the study of Torah and that you get involved in it. Meaning: A) that you have a set amount of time that you learn every day, B) That it is not simply your reading but you are involved with it, that you communicate with the Torah and you allow the Torah to speak to you. We spoke about the four seasons and but the music can we do that … you must know the story of the four seasons, I have told it so many times. [?] Now I see who sleeps during the sermon.
Basically the point is that you have to learn how to pay attention to the torah and read the subtle undertones of the torah and read between the lines not only what is being spoken to you like some people who hide behind the thing and hide their m and ms from me [?]. (Laughter) Now I see you. Paying attention to the Torah. There is nothing that compares to sitting down for a few hours straight and leaning Gemara, nothing. When I was in Yeshiva in Miami, so I was in the beis midrash at 5:30 every morning and I was leaving the earliest 11:30 at night. Someone would bring my meals to the beis midrash and I would eat right outside the beis midrash so I wouldn’t leave morning till night. I was all of 14 years old so I didn’t really know that anything existed outside especially since I spent all my time in Yeshiva anyway. And I didn’t want to go to college. Which was after I graduated high school. I didn’t want to go to college because I said, “Listen, I am learning from 5:30 in the morning until 11:30 at night so I do not have any time to go to college.” So my father said, “Listen, what I want you to do is the following: I want you to make a list of anytime you go outside to go to the bathroom, every time you go outside of the beit midrash – because no one would think of wasting time in the beis midrash – every time you go outside just to as they say hahk a schmooze – you know it’s so called a bull session in English – and every time you are just sitting there and not really learning. Just keep a list.” So you’re in the beit midrash from 5:30 until 12:00, about 6 and a half hours, and then from 12:00 … a total of about 17 to 18 hours a day. Calculate how many of those hours are spent seriously learning. And it worked out to six hours that I was learning. And yet I was in the beit midrash an incredible amount of time. He said, “Go to college and you will find that you will almost double the amount of time you will learn, because it will be concentrated, you will waste less time and you will be more committed to your learning if that is what you really want to do.” And that’s what happened. I almost doubled the amount of time that I was learning. And there was no wasting time. And the difference was: instead of learning an hour and then going outside and going to the bathroom and then looking over there and looking there, and making a phone call, talking with this person and learning another hour and doing it again and losing the whole momentum and the inertia almost that you have from learning hour after hour, it was destroying it. Now I was learning 3 solid hours at a shot and it was an incredible experience. I learned twice as much and I felt myself becoming an entirely different person.
Concentrated learning at a regular time every day changes a person. It is called shprahchta fuel. [?] The reason we said na’aseh before nishma is that if you involve, you are osaik batorah, you are busy, you toil in Torah, it changes you and you no longer look at the world as an American alone but you literally learn how to respond to life’s numerous and challenging situations as a Jew. We open up … you come to a class one twice three times five times a week it isn’t the same as opening a book and slugging your way through it fifteen minutes a day, the same time every day. It is not the same, there are no Jewish people, no Jewish people, without Torah. It is not Shabbos which kept us alive, that is not true, and it is not Taharas hamishpacha which kept us alive, that is not true, and it is not kosher that kept us alive – it is nothing but learning. Because people who keep Shabbos do not start learning. Ask yourselves how many people you know who keep Shabbos who do not learn. And keeping taharat hamishpacha, family purity, does not lead to learning. How many people go to the mikvah and do not learn and how many people keep kosher, would never eat out, the strictest of kosher, and do not learn on a regular basis. But learning does lead to Shabbos, learning does lead to family purity, learning does lead to kashrut, learning does lead to observance of lashon harah.
We had a board meeting a week and a half ago at which I took a strong stand about lashon harah. That I wouldn’t allow something to be discussed because it was lashon harah. The response since then has been incredible anger. First of all what right does the rabbi have to introduce the laws of lashon harah in a board meeting? (Laughter) You know when you have a question, “When is my yartzheit,” that’s when I need the Rabbi. Or which hashgacha is good and which hashgacha is not good, that’s when I need the Rabbi. Or I need the Rabbi to speak at my son’s Bar Mitzvah and my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah and to make a nice speech when I have a baby. But to practice law, do not need it, why? How is it possible that a Jew would say that? It comes from not learning Torah. People who have learned Torah would, we keep mitzvoth we are unaffected, why? Because we do not learn Torah. And I’m sorry, coming to classes is not the same thing as toiling in Torah, opening up a text with a chavrusta, study partner, male, female, in between, anyone, and working at it. It is an incredible experience. And you are missing the greatest, the most wonderful Jewish experience if you do not sit down with one person and we slug something out at least once a week. Do it once a week for an hour you will be a changed human being. Not necessarily more religious, but you will have more passion in the things that you observe, you will feel more connected to G-d.
There is Ludwig Lewisson [?], he is a great Jewish writer, in 1953 Bnei Brith published an article, “What is this the Jewish heritage,” that was written by Lewisson. And it tells a story of how immediately after the VE day, Victory in Europe, so a group of Polish Jews had run Eastward towards Siberia at the beginning of the war thinking they would be protected and safe in Russia understood that they had to get out of Russia as quickly as possible, and so they decided to go back through run through their town in Poland so that they could see if they could find any relatives and from Poland escape into the American zone of Germany and hopefully get to America. When they arrived in their village in Poland they found that the shul was ransacked, burned down, until they found the stairs that led into what used to be the cellar. The building was in ruins and there were stairs there and the stairs had been burned, they were charred. They climbed down the stairs with candles and there in what used to be the basement of a beautiful shul, they found soaking wet gemaras. They lit their candles and they sat down and they started learning Gemara. And they were there for a few hours until someone ran to them and shouted down into the cellar, Rabbotai, you know, the Americans are closing the zone, you have to get out of here, you have to run or you will be stuck here for ever. Hurry up. And they shouted back up “Shh, Shh medarp learning, medarp learning [?]” – “you have to learn, you have to learn” – and they were so involved in their learning that they no longer, they were transported. They forgot about needing to run away to the American zone. That’s really what Judaism is, this is the mitzvah, that is why when you hear “Talmud Torah keneged kulam” – Talmud Torah represents all the mitzvahs in the Torah – there are no mitzvahs unless you learn, that is what this is all about.
And the Maharal says that the reason we make the berachah, la’asok bidevrei Torah – to toil in the words of Torah – is that if it says to learn to learn, if the berachah was to learn Torah, than we would think, you know who am I? Let’s say I learn Torah and I am studying and I make a mistake, I mistranslate a word, or even if I do not mistranslate a word but I read something into Abraham’s behavior which really was not there. It may be how I see it and I sensed it but it may not be true and if it is not true than I am not really learning Torah, right? So the Maharal says that the berachah is la’asok bedivrei Torah, to toil in the words of Torah, because it makes no difference if you make a mistake, if you misunderstand, if you get a skewed view of everything that is going on in the Torah, it makes no difference. The Torah is there to be learned and it is the involvement in it that really changes the human being.
And the Ramchal says, Reb Moshe Chaim Luzzato says, that there is a difference between someone who opens up and starts learning and someone who before they learn just reminds themselves that this is the greatest gift that G-d has ever given us. Just try it, one time before you learn to say a prayer, thank you G-d for giving us Torah, thank you for speaking to us through the Torah, and being aware as you are learning that that is what Torah is and it will transform the learning that you’re doing. That is the mitzvah of teaching and learning Torah. Any questions? I am sorry if I was a little forceful but it is something that I care about very much.
And I have to tell you that I had a very exciting life at certain times. But nothing in my life can compare to the experience of sitting down with my father and learning and not only when I was a little boy but every six weeks I go to Baltimore, I leave on the 5 something train, I arrive at my parents house at 9 o’clock, I learn with my father from 9 until six. He doesn’t take any calls, we learn straight, no interruptions. All we do is learn, we do not discuss anything. It is the greatest experience. I could be in the lowest spirits, because of stuff going on where I work – I won’t say anything (laughter) – and I just sit down and I am energized for the next few weeks. And then from six to seven we eat supper and we discuss the things that fathers and sons discuss like what am I working on, and what am I learning, and those types of things, and then he drives me back to the train and I come back here late at night. There is nothing that can compare to it.
There is nothing that can ever equal the memory I have of sitting on my grandfather’s lap and studying Torah with him and there is no memory that is more powerful in my mind then when my grandfather was on his death bed, his pulse was almost gone, blood pressure they couldn’t even find his blood pressure, no respiration, his body was the color of death, he was curled up in a ball. My brother and I opened up a Gemara and began reading Gemara to him. His body relaxed, his blood pressure went up to normal, his pulse went back to normal, his respiration went to normal, they took off the respirator. 18 hours my brother and I sat at his side and read Gemara and his lips said the Gemara with us. Until it was Shabbos, he had always said he would die on Shabbos, the 18 hours ended, it was Shabbos, he died. It literally brought him back to life. I will never forget it. A Jew who has that connection to Torah will have real Yiddushkeit more than anything else, even more than davening.